Issue #150 February – Watersheds: America, Australia, China, India

Special Issue: Watersheds: America, Australia, China, India

Issue 150, February 2019



Watersheds in watersheds: The fate of the planet’s major river systems in the Great Acceleration

Ruth Gamble, Trevor Hogan

Humans have, by biological necessity, always lived in watersheds. This article provides an overview of humans’ relationship to these watersheds as an introduction to a special issue of Thesis Eleven on watersheds. It describes the basic functioning of watersheds, how humans have always depended on them, and how they have slowly begun to manipulate them. Humans across the planet began by making strategic adjustments to water’s downward flow to aid the procurement of water and fish. As small states, empires, and finally the Industrial Revolution unfolded, these interventions became more numerous with greater environmental impacts. The rate of riverine exploitation increased dramatically post-Second World War in line with the Great Acceleration. This, in turn, created our current worldwide ecological crisis. This crisis particularly affects the planet’s watersheds, and in turn, humans. The article ends with the assertion that studies of such a complex event are by necessity multi-disciplinary and inter-regional. It then outlines the contents of this special issue which examines watersheds in Asia, America and Australia.

Nation’s body, river’s pulse: Narratives of anti-dam politics in India

Amita Baviskar

In the 1990s, social movements against large dams in India were celebrated for crafting a powerful challenge to dominant policies of development. These grounded struggles were acclaimed for their critique of capitalist industrialization and their advocacy for an alternative model of socially just and ecologically sustainable development. Twenty years later, as large dams continue to be built, their critics have shifted the battle off the streets to new arenas – to courts and government committees, in particular – and switched to a techno-managerial discourse of maintaining river health. What accounts for this change? This article traces the trajectory of cultural politics around Indian rivers within the larger imagination of the nation, the rise of economic liberalization and Hindu nationalism, and the emergence of environmental bureaucracies. It argues that, alongside being shaped by this context, current anti-dam campaigns also contend with the legacy of earlier social movements, their gains as well as losses. This political field has narrowed the potential for radical critique, large-scale collective mobilization and, ultimately, keeping rivers alive.

How dams climb mountains: China and India’s state-making hydropower contest in the Eastern-Himalaya watershed

Ruth Gamble

The dam rush in the upper-Brahmaputra River basin and local, minority resistance to it are the result of complex geopolitical and parochial causes. India and China’s competing claims for sovereignty over the watershed depend upon British and Qing Dynasty imperial precedents respectively. And the two nation-states have extended and enhanced their predecessors’ claims on the area by continuing to erase local sovereignty, enclose the commons, and extract natural resources on a large scale. Historically, the upper basin’s terrain forestalled the thorough integration of this region into both nation-states, but recent technological and economic advances have enabled the two states and their agents to dramatically transformed these landscapes. Many of their projects have perpetuated the interventionist hydrological regimes that India and China also inherited from their imperial forebears. Nevertheless, as with their definition of their borders, neither state has highlighted this historical contingency. Instead, both governments have consistently presented their hydropower projects as shining examples of necessary and benevolent development. Their economy-focused, monolithic development paradigms have, not coincidently, also enabled the systemic side-lining of non-majority cultures, religions and histories. The combination of this cultural exclusion and the nation-states’ late integration of this peripheral region has laid the ground for conflict with local groups over the dam rush. Local identities and experiences have evolved around complex religious, cultural and trade networks, many of which were heavily influenced by the now-defunct Tibetan polity, rather than via modern Chinese and Indian nationalist discourses of development. The dam clashes highlight both the basin’s complex cultural matrixes and the ambiguous relationship Asia’s two most populous nation-states have with their respective imperial pasts. And as the situation remains unresolved, the watershed is an ecological catastrophe in waiting.

An institutional analysis of China’s South-to-North water diversion

Mark Wang, Chen Li

The availability of and demand for water in China is an extreme case of uneven distribution in time and space. In response, the South to North Water Diversion (SNWD) project, the largest inter-basin water transfer scheme in the world, channels large amounts of fresh water from the Yangtze River in southern China to the more arid and industrialised north. In order to keep the SNWD project running smoothly, a comprehensive governance system has been implemented and innovative institutional arrangements have been created to facilitate the transfer of water itself. By taking the SNWD project’s Middle Route as one case study and drawing on primary and secondary data, this article examines the project’s emerging institutional arrangements. The article outlines the establishment of new institutions for the SNWD project with high administrative rankings at both central and local levels, the encouragement of inter-department cooperation, the adoption of a market mechanism and the integration of market functions into administrative functions. We argue that these institutional arrangements have to some extent overcome common challenges in water governance in China, including an engineering-heavy approach and what Chinese commentators have traditionally called the problem of water being managed by multiple government ministries and municipal authorities as the common metaphor of ‘nine dragons managing the water’. Our findings have significant implications for understanding the continuing evolution of water governance in China.

African Americans and the Mississippi River: Race, history and the environment

Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted

Long touted in literary and historical works, the Mississippi River remains an iconic presence in the American landscape. Whether referred to as ‘Old Man River’ or the ‘Big Muddy,’ the Mississippi River represents imageries ranging from pastoral and Acadian to turbulent and unpredictable. But these imageries – revealed through the cultural production of artists, writers and even filmmakers – did not adequately reflect the experiences of everyone living and working along the river. The African-American community and its relationship to the Mississippi River down the ages is occluded by these discourses. In focusing on this alternate history, namely the African-American experience with the Mississippi River, the overarching framework of this paper will consist of three lenses on the river as: refuge, labor, and cultural icon. From the moment of their arrival, the intersection of their lives with the Mississippi River reveals a history where the river offers freedom, oppression, escape, sustenance, renewal, disease and displacement. From this largely unexplored perspective, distinctions of race and class are exposed and reinforced. Although rivers have long been included in the historical record, whether through a geographical, spiritual, aesthetic or recreational perspective, the juncture where human lives intersect with rivers, constructing memory and identity, remains overlooked despite a plethora of cultural artifacts such as song, prose and poetry that distinguish experiences. These cultural artifacts, in turn, differentiate reciprocal relationships with the river based on race and class. For the African-American community, the Mississippi River alternated between liberator and oppressor, informing the social construct of an identity that was at times lamented, celebrated, demeaned and feared. But how did these linkages with the river not only influence a distinct collective memory but also nurture a culture with certain understandings and perspectives about the river? And if so, what have been their ramifications? Through an examination of folklore, song and first-person accounts, these questions will be addressed as multiple narratives persist, offering a history that makes more explicit the distinctive experiences of the African-American communities in their engagement with the Mississippi River.

Kapi Wiya: Water insecurity and aqua-nullius in remote inland Aboriginal Australia

Barry Judd

Water has been a critical resource for Anangu peoples across the remote inland for millennia, underpinning their ability to live in low rainfall environments. Anangu biocultural knowledge of kapi (water) developed in complex ways that enabled this resource to be found. Such biocultural knowledge included deep understandings of weather patterns and of species behavior. Kapi and its significance to desert-dwelling peoples can be seen in ancient mapping practices, whether embedded in stone as petroglyphs or in ceremonial song and dance practices associated with the Tjukurpa. While in the past the sustainability of kapi was facilitated by mobility that spread human dependence on this resource across multiple sites, since the 1940s Anangu have been coerced by the settler-colonial state to live a sedentary lifestyle in remote communities such as Haasts Bluff, Papunya and Yuendemu. In many of these communities the supply of kapi is becoming increasingly insecure in terms of viability of supply, cost, quality and threats from mining. This paper provides a brief insight into how kapi has become devalued in the context of contemporary remote communities with particular reference to my area of expertise – Aboriginal identity, well-being and Australian sports.

Are we there yet? The Murray-Darling Basin and sustainable water management

Jamie Pittock

In 2007, then Australian Prime Minister Howard said of the Murray-Darling Basin’s rivers that action was required to end the ‘The tyranny of incrementalism and the lowest common denominator’ governance to prevent ‘economic and environmental decline’. This paper explores the management of these rivers as an epicentre for three key debates for the future of Australia. Information on biodiversity, analyses of the socio-ecological system, and climate change projections are presented to illustrate the disjunction between trends in environmental health and the institutions established to manage the Basin sustainably. Three key debates are considered: (1) conflict over the allocation of water between irrigated agriculture versus a range of other ecosystem services as the latest manifestation of the debate between adherents of the pioneering myth versus advocates of limits to growth in Australia; (2) cyclical crises as a driver of reactive policy reform and the prospects of the 2008 Water Act forming the basis of proactive, adaptive management of emerging threats and opportunities; and (3) subsidiarity in governance of the environment and natural resources in the Australian federation. Implementation of the 2012 Basin Plan as promised by the Federal Government ‘in full and on time’ is a key sustainability test for Australia. Despite Australian claims of exceptionalism, the Murray-Darling Basin experience mirrors the challenges faced in managing rivers sustainably and across governance scales in federations around the world.

Water+shed: A 20-year survey of artwork on the Murray Darling Basin, Australia

Neil Fettling

The Murray Darling Basin is the primary watershed of the Australian continent. It is central to the national imaginary as both major food bowl and natural resource. Two hundred years of unsustainable pastoral and farming practices are threatening its ecological future and with it the nation-state’s industrial agricultural economic base. I am a visual artist who works in multiple media. For most of my career I have been living and working in this region. A major component of my intellectual and artistic expression has been expended in a critical and aesthetic response to this watershed. The artworks documented in this essay were part of a 20-year (1989–2009) survey exhibition of my mediations and responses to the crisis of water allocation in the Murray Darling Basin.


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